The design world is a bit like Cher, the Alicia Silverstone character, in Clueless. Wrapped up for too long in baubles and bright pretty things, it has come to find a social conscience.
An early sign of mood change came two years ago when the Cooper-Hewitt in New York mounted "Design for the Other 90%," an exhibit of products that serve the needs of people living in developing countries, such as the Lifestraw water purifier, shown above.
Tomorrow the museum opens "Design for a Living World," which could be seen as a sequel to the earlier show. Shrewdly timed to coincide with this week's lead-up to ICFF, the country's premier design event, "Design for a Living World" addresses a topic that has come into sharp focus since the economic downturn: how to reinvent the egregiously inefficient and wasteful production and distribution of furnishings and other design goods.
The show, which was organized with the Nature Conservancy, is meant to demonstrate that products can, in theory, help to sustain the places and people that produced them. In the giddy days of Moss openings and Philippe Starck hotels nobody thought much about where things originated. Today the discourse of design is focused squarely on informed and responsible consumption.
Unlike "Design for the other 90%" which showed the work of mostly unknown designers and engineers, the new show goes for boldface names. The museum invited ten well-known designers to create ten sustainable products from ten places where the Conservancy works. All of them are prototypes, which is fitting for a show that is more about theory than the actualities of production.
Christien Meindertsma, a Dutch textile designer, used wool from a sustainable sheep ranch in Idaho to create a large knit rug made of modular parts parts, each one made from the yield of a specific sheep.
Isaac Mizrahi, the fashion designer, made a cocktail dress and high heels out of Alaskan salmon skin, which fisheries normally discard.
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Stephen Burks designed a tool made from Australian jamwood to be used by the local Noongar people to make and package a line of organic cosmetics.
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Maya Lin created a bench from slices of sustainably harvested red maples on the banks of the Upper St. John River in Main.
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Industrial designer Yves Behar worked with a woman's chocolate cooperative in Costa Rica to make packaging and a grating tool for the local cocoa industry.
Hella Jongerius made decorative vessels and plates from the traditional chicle latex harvested on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Ted Muehling, the jewelry designer, carved ivory nut palms from the Micronesian island of Pohnpei into a necklace.
Kate Spade's New York design team worked with Bolivian craftspeople to create a collection of handbags made of sustainable wood, cotton and jipijapa, a fiber made of palm leaves.
Ezri Tarazi used raw bamboo stalks from China's Yunnan Province to create building materials and furnishings.
Read more about sustainable business practices in Fast Company's Ethonomics channel.